Several types of candy imported to New York City from Mexico may contain trace amounts of lead, according to the federal Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA issued a statement on April 9, warning against any Mexican candy that contains significant amounts of chili powder. “It would be prudent to not allow children to eat these products at this time,” it states.
Two weeks later, the Orange County Register revealed that more than 80 types of Mexican candy—including Lucas snack powder; Vero Elotes lollipops; and Pelon Pelo Rico tamarind paste—have tested high for lead dozens of times over the past 10 years.
City Limits found many of these popular treats still on the shelves of local bodegas in East Harlem, Sunset Park and Corona.
The Register’s two-year investigation discovered that the candy gets contaminated during the production process, when dirt is inadvertently mixed into chili powder or tamarind paste is stored in clay pots glazed with lead.
While testing by California’s health department found inconsistent results, the story’s authors note that even occasional exposure to low doses of lead could harm a child’s mental development.
Bruce Lanphear, an Ohio-based pediatrician and lead poisoning expert, agrees. “Given the increasing evidence that there is no threshold for the consequences on children’s intellectual abilities, we must find ways to prevent the multiple ways that children are exposed to lead,” he said.
It is not yet clear if or how the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is responding to the FDA warning. The agency could not comment on the matter by press time.
Some observers note that the agency may be wary of getting dragged into another political mess. Last year, during hearings on the city’s new lead paint law, opponents—including the Health Department—noted that some lead poisoning cases were among immigrants exposed abroad. Supporters of the law accused them of using that argument to deflect attention from irresponsible landlords.
“It was ugly,” recalled Cordell Cleare, chair of the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning, which pushed for the law. Though she hadn’t seen the recent news stories, Cleare said the coalition had discussed risks associated with candy.
Still, it isn’t her main concern. “The major source of poisoning is not Mexican candy,” she said. “The major source of poisoning is poorly maintained housing.”